Employers, even governments, have finite resources when it comes to making workplace adjustments for disabled employees. They often face difficult decisions in determining how their budgets should be spent.

Cordell v Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2011) concerned a diplomat who is profoundly deaf. She was offered a post in Kazakhstan. However, because of difficulties, in particular the cost of providing her with English lipspeaker support (which came to around £230,000), the posting could not proceed. She alleged this amounted to direct disability discrimination and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had failed in its duty to make reasonable adjustments. In particular, she relied on the assertion that the cost was equivalent to the amount potentially payable to assist staff who had a large number of school-age children.

In relation to direct discrimination the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) found that she had not been less favourably treated on the grounds of her disability. The reason for her treatment was not her deafness, but the cost of the support that would have been required.

The EAT also concluded that the provision of a lip-speaker, given the considerable cost, was not a reasonable adjustment. The EAT accepted that there is no “objective measure” for balancing the disadvantage to the employee against the cost of the adjustment. Although a number of considerations, including what was spent in comparable situations, would assist in the assessment, it is ultimately a question for the tribunal based on what it considers “right and just.”

Although the EAT regretted that the claimant’s disability might limit her career opportunities, it stated that the law did not require an employer to “compensate for that misfortune at whatever cost.”